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Brain Pills (video)
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Interviewees: Betty Stewart, daughter of Alzheimer's patient; Gary Small, UCLA; Jorge Barrio, UCLA.

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Statistics about Alzheimer’s Disease

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& Referral Center - a service of the National Institute on Aging

You may have used over-the-counter pills like ibuprofen for pain. Now neuroscientists have found that some of these common painkillers may be more useful than you think.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, they could protect against Alzheimer’s disease.

Hope from the Drug Store

An ordinary drug found in your medicine cabinet could actually help lessen the severity of, and maybe even prevent, Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have discovered that common pain-killers, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, may actually help dissolve amyloid plaques, lumps of protein that form lesions in the brains of patients with this disease.

What causes Alzheimer’s disease is still unknown. Dr. Gary Small, Parlow-Solomon Professor of Aging and professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, describes its devastating effects: “Initially it affects your memory. Short-term memory goes first. As the disease gradually progresses, it affects all areas of cognitive function. People have personality changes. They get depressed, and they get agitated. Eventually they need total care; they can’t even feed themselves. It’s devastating to families. Care-givers themselves get depressed and overwhelmed.”

All patients with Alzheimer’s disease have amyloid plaques in their brains. The plaques disrupt cell function and actually kill off brain cells, which leads to the disorientation and progressive memory loss. Dr. Jorge R. Barrio, professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, used a chemical marker he developed in his lab called FDDNP, which works by highlighting the amyloid plaques with a fluorescent glow. This helps him visually zero-in on the plaques. When both anti-inflammatory drugs and the chemical marker were added to diseased brain fibers, it was discovered that the drugs actually bind to the plaques. Further chemical tests indicate that the drugs may not only help dissolve existing plaques, but also prevent new ones from forming.

This research could explain why people who have taken these over-the-counter, non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs over several years (such as patients with arthritis) seem to have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life. It also provides information that will be extremely useful in the development of new drugs designed to both destroy and prevent plaque formation.

More Research is Needed

But this doesn’t mean you should start taking ibuprofen as a preventative measure against the disease. More research needs to be done. Scientists must test their results on living patients, which is what they are going to do next.

The key to combating a disease like Alzheimer’s, especially in light of this new research, is catching it early. “I think I would consider Alzheimer’s like I see cancer or cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Barrio. “We all know that if we arrive at the diagnosis of cancer too late our chances are slim. And I think with Alzheimer’s disease we are arriving too late to the scene. We believe with the use of these painkillers, the disease may be slowed down, if the disease is diagnosed early, and the nerve damage is minimal in the brain.”

Dr. Barrio believes the results of this study, which will be published in the march 31 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, will provide hope to both patients with Alzheimer’s disease and their families. One in 10 persons over 65 and nearly half of those over 85 have Alzheimer’s disease. The United States spends at least $100 billion a year on the disease, and neither Medicare nor most private health insurance covers the long-term care most patients need.

The UCLA study was supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Energy.

by Karen Lurie

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